In a beach paradise in northeast Brazil sexy DJ Erika (Nathalia Dill) arrives with her girlfriend Lara (Livia de Bueno) to perform a set at Shangri-La, a huge rave festival of art and alternative culture. Amidst the heady atmosphere the girls celebrate life by indulging dance, drugs and sex, both with each other and with Nando (Luca Bianchi), a handsome young backpacker looking to achieve a similar form of transcendence. But their steamy threesome carries repercussions that haunt the characters when Nando rediscovers Erika in Amsterdam some years later and four years on when he rejoins his troubled family after a stint in prison.
Produced by the socially-conscious creative team behind Elite Squad (2007) and the harrowing documentary BUS 174 (2005), Artificial Paradises is a glossy, sexy, philosophical if somewhat despairing fable set amidst the vibrant Brazillian beach rave scene. The film shares some themes in common with Harmony Korine’s more abrasive and confrontational Spring Breakers (2012) with its portrayal of young people seeking transcendence through unabashed hedonism. While sexually explicit, the tone is less salacious and consequently more sincere in its spiritual inclinations. Its most audacious aspect is the fractured story structure that jumps back and forth between Nando’s present day predicament, cute courtship of Erika in Amsterdam and sun-kissed antics on the Brazilian beach, leaving it to the viewer to figure out the precise chronology of events.
Marcos Prado paints a vivid and undeniably seductive picture of the Brazilian beach rave scene but behind the bright colours, pulsating beats and exhilarating sex, we know things are unlikely to end well given the film opens with a broken, disheveled Nando leaving prison after a four year stretch. Another harbinger of doom manifests when the bus loaded with ravers drives past the aftermath of a car crash with body-bags strewn along the highway. As implied by the title the film seems to perceive the euphoric beach rave as a fool’s paradise where young people resort to dance music, casual sex and mind-altering drugs in search of something only attainable through forging tangible emotional connections. In some ways Artificial Paradises recalls those films from the Sixties were grumpy middle-aged filmmakers explored and exploited psychedelia and the counterculture yet took a pretty scathing view of hippie ideals. Aspects of that are evident in such scenes as when a naked Erika freaks out in the midst of a bad trip engulfed by stampeding cattle or the soap opera sub-plot wherein Nando tries to stop his kid brother working for the same drug-traffickers that landed him in jail.
However, though Artificial Paradises does appear torn between a skeptical and celebratory attitude towards the subject matter it is not a cynical or opportunistic film. In fact the filmmakers take a pleasingly open-minded and open-hearted attitude towards the drugged-up free love scene encapsulated in the homespun philosophy of Mark (Roney Villela) the sagely old hippie who advises Erika that people take what they want from drug-induced hallucinations and we are essentially what we feel. While the underlining philosophy treads a fine line between heartwarming and trite, the romantic sub-plot proves compelling enough thanks to charming performances from gorgeous Nathalia Dill and Luca Bianchi with a plot twist that is a little far-fetched though pleasing. Of course anyone unimpressed by the film’s philosophical aspirations can simply revel in the abundant steamy sex including a lengthy girl on girl tryst that probably stands as a working definition of gratuitous but, well, you know...